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Tampa Red

Date of birth : 1904-01-08
Date of death : 1981-03-19
Birthplace : Smithville, Georgia, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2012-02-17

Tampa Red, born Hudson Woodbridge but known from childhood as Hudson Whittaker, was an American Chicago blues musician.

Though not widely known or listened to in the 1990s, Tampa Red is one of the seminal figures in blues history. His career spanned the 26 years from 1928 to 1954, the Golden Age of the blues. He cut nearly 230 sides and released more 78s than any other blues artist. He formed a vital link between the country blues of the 1920s and the electric Chicago blues of the postwar era. His songs were popular with the record public and other artists who covered them frequently. His impeccable slide guitar technique influenced blues players like Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Robert Nighthawk, and rock-era musicians like Ry Cooder. What's more, his help and kindness enabled countless musicians to get a foothold in the Chicago clubs and recording studios of the 1930s and 1940s.

Tampa Red was born Hudson Woodbridge in Southville, Georgia. The date of his birth is uncertain. Tampa himself gave dates varying from 1900 to 1908. The birth date given on his death certificate is January 8, 1904. Just as little is known about his parents, John and Elizabeth Woodbridge. They passed away while Tampa was a child, and he and his brother Eddie were given over to the care of their grandmother, Annie Whittaker. Tampa took her last name as his own and was raised by her in Tampa, Florida.

Tampa's first musical inspiration was his brother, Eddie, who played guitar around the Tampa area. For a while, according to William Barlow's Looking Up At Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture, Tampa followed a musician named Piccolo Pete through the streets of the city. Pete eventually showed Tampa some rudimentary blues licks. Apparently, Tampa also picked up some knowledge from early recordings of women blues singers like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Ida Cox. "That [1920] record of "Crazy Blues" by Mamie Smith, it was one of the first blues records ever made," Tampa told Martin Williams in an interview quoted in the liner notes to Tampa Red: The Bluebird Recordings 1934-1936. "I said to myself, 'I don't know any music, but I can play that.'"

By 1925, Tampa had moved to Chicago and taken to playing the blues in the street. He had also adopted the name Tampa Red, after his Florida home and either his red hair or his light complexion, depending on who one believes. In Chicago, Tampa met Thomas Dorsey. It was an encounter that changed Tampa's life. Dorsey was an accomplished pianist, composer, and arranger who had performed and recorded with the leading female blues singers of the era, in particular the great Ma Rainey. Dorsey introduced Tampa to J. Mayo Williams, the front man for Paramount Records in Chicago. Williams arranged a session at Paramount for Tampa.

His first 78, "Through Train Blues," didn't shake up the world. He had to share the record with Paramount's big star, Blind Lemon Jefferson. But his second record, released in 1928, caused a sensation. The song was called "It's Tight Like That." The song's sexual suggestiveness and infectious rhythm caught the public's fancy in a big way--it sold nearly one million copies. Tampa would later recall people lined up outside record stores waiting to buy it. The song was composed and performed by Tampa and Dorsey, who played blues under the name Georgia Tom. The success of "It's Tight Like That" surprised both men--and delighted them as well--they shared some $4,000 in royalties! "It was just a little old song but they really went for it," Tampa told Jim O'Neal, in an interview quoted in The Bluebird Recordings 1934-1936. "'Tight Like That' wasn't no original tune," Dorsey is quoted by William Barlow, "It was just something that popped up at the right time to make some money." The song came about when Mayo Williams heard them playing with a tune, borrowed from a Papa Charley Jordan song, built around the then-popular catch phrase, "Tight Like That." Williams loved it and insisted they record it right away.

The song's popularity spawned a slew of imitators. Even Tampa and Georgia Tom recorded it. Samuel Charters called "It's Tight Like That" the most over-recorded song of its time. It's rapping, half-spoken style gave rise to a new musical category called hokum. Tampa and Georgia Tom recorded for a while under the name "The Hokum Boys." Their collaboration did much to establish the piano-guitar combo in blues. More important, it sealed Tampa's future as a blues artist. He was in demand. In 1928 and 1929, besides making their own records, he and Georgia Tom appeared on recordings by Ma Rainey, Madilyn Davis, Lil Johnson, and female impersonator Frankie "Half Pint" Jaxon.

In 1932 Dorsey abandoned blues for gospel music. The Depression was bottoming out too. It looked like Tampa's career might be over. After the frantic recording of 1928-32, he did not have a single session between May 7, 1932 and March 22, 1934. Three events contributed to his resurrection: the repeal of Prohibition, the rise of the jukebox, and Lester Melrose taking over RCA Victor's new Bluebird label. Jukeboxes provided cheap entertainment in the newly legal bars. Lester Melrose recognized their importance for record companies and made sure his artists were well represented in Chicago jukeboxes.

Melrose signed Tampa to a Bluebird contract in 1934. Bluebird was the RCA Victor budget line--its 78s cost only 35 cents, not seventy five cents like most others-and was affordable for the black blues audience. Before long, Tampa was one of Bluebird's leading artists. He helped develop the smooth Bluebird sound, built on a stable of in-house musicians who played on most of the company's releases. During a 20-year association with the label, Tampa recorded a variety of music standards (like "Nobody's Sweetheart,") boogie woogie ("Shake It Up A Little"), swing-flavored tunes ("Mr. Rhythm Man"), and, of course, blues ("Anna Mae Blues").

Tampa became Lester Melrose's right-hand man in Chicago. Tampa's apartment on 35th and State became a meeting point for blues musicians visiting or living in Chicago, a kind of combination rehearsal hall and boarding house. "Melrose'd pay [Tampa] for the lodging," Blind John Davis is quoted in Nothing But The Blues, "and Mrs. Tampa would cook for 'em." According to Muddy Waters, later the only way to a contract with Melrose was through Tampa Red.

By the 1940s Tampa's sound had evolved a long way from the hokum of 1928. Cuts like "You're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone" and "Mercy Mama Blues" have a much rougher, urban sound, that looks ahead to the blues of Sunnyland Slim and Muddy Waters. In fact, strains of Muddy can already be heard in 1934's "Kingfish Blues." Only the smooth tunefulness of Tampa's singing keeps some of these records from being as raw as any postwar blues. Twenty years after "It's Tight Like That," Tampa had another huge hit. 1949's "When Things Go Wrong With You (It Hurts Me Too)" broke into the new Billboard Rhythm & Blues chart. The song's insistent beat, the harmony singing in the chorus, the interplay of the guitar and piano, Tampa's exquisite phrasing, the "dog" growls, the way the band abruptly cuts out in the last chorus, all combine to make a perfect blues record, as moving as Elmore James's more famous cover version.

In 1954, Tampa's wife Francis passed away. The loss devastated him. Afterwards, he was overcome by a drinking problem which, in William Barlow's words, "left him virtually incapacitated." Except for a brief "rediscovery," he lived out the rest of his days in seclusion on the South Side of Chicago. He died in Chicago's Central Nursing Home on March 19, 1981. He was buried--without a headstone--in Mt. Glenwood Cemetery in Glenwood, Illinois.

Tampa Red's importance to the development of the blues is only now being recognized. RCA's decision to release his complete Bluebird recording is contributing a great deal to this recognition. Tampa melded country blues with pop music and in doing so helped create the urban blues. He was one of the first bluesmen to use an electric guitar. He influenced most of the blues players who followed him. In an interview quoted in The Bluebird Recordings, Ry Cooder expressed the thought that Tampa's influence went far beyond the blues: "I really think that it's a straight line from Tampa Red to Louis Jordan to Chuck Berry, without a doubt.... Tampa Red changed it from rural music to commercial music."


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